ESPN's CEO John Skipper decided to end his company's partnership with a PBS's Frontline investigation into NFL concussions after viewing a trailer for the upcoming documentary. Skipper, talking to ESPN's ombudsman, said he thought the trailer sensationalized the story. Here's the trailer Skipper didn't like:
But as an earlier New York Times report (not to mention Lipsyte's own take) makes clear, the issue is likely more complicated than an unwelcome trailer. Skipper marks the "catalyst" of the chain of events that led to ESPN pulling the plug as the August 6 panel at which the trailer was first shown. But a week after that, and one week before Skipper went public and severed the partnership, the CEO met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network. The Times described the meeting as "combative," and their sources say that Goodell pressured Skipper to cut ties with Frontline on the project. From the trailer, it's pretty easy to see how the NFL fares in the documentarians' hands: "Frontline investigates what the NFL knew, and when they knew it," the narrator says. Then, an interviewee adds, "you can't go against the NFL. They'll squash you."
Addressing the root cause of Skipper's decision, Lipsyte wrote: "beats me." But the ombudsman raises a list of questions, some deeply rooted in an ongoing debate over the line between editorial and programming at the network:
Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism? Was ESPN naïve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also naïve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)?
And tries to provide a range of answers:
At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.
Frontline's League of Denial, sans ESPN branding, will air on PBS in two parts on October 8 and 15th.
(Photos: PBS's Frontline)